China's authorities are quietly rounding up people who protested against COVID rules
Her gaze is steady and her voice barely quivers in the video as she remembers what brought her out onto the Beijing streets in late November, and the consequences she knew she likely faced for her decision.
"I have delegated some friends to publicize this video after I disappear. When you see this video, I will have been arrested too," the 26-year-old woman states calmly.
On Christmas Eve, the woman, an editor at a Beijing publishing press, was arrested at her family home in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, and taken into police custody in Beijing, according to three people who know her.
She is one of eight people NPR was able to confirm had been arrested in connection to peaceful demonstrations held across the country last November. The protests began after a deadly fire in the western city of Urumqi, where at least 10 people died after they were unable to escape their blazing apartment due to pandemic lockdown measures.
Infuriated by nearly three years of stringent COVID-19 policies, residents of nearly every major Chinese city held vigils commemorating the lives of the those who had died while trapped under lockdown conditions or because they were denied potentially life-saving care.
Many attendees held up blank white sheets of paper to represent the lack of agency and freedom of expression they felt under the pandemic rules. Since then, the demonstrations have been dubbed "the A4 protests," named after the A4 paper size used internationally.
The demonstrations were also a powerful rebuke of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has become closely associated with a suite of regulations loosely termed "zero COVID" and meant to keep coronavirus infection numbers near zero.
Less than two weeks after the A4 protests first began, Chinese authorities announced they were rolling back nearly all of their zero-COVID policies. They eliminated extensive contact-tracing and quarantine systems, as well as mandatory coronavirus testing once required every two to three days.
By then, China's security ministries were already hunting down people they believed were behind the vigils.
"The police need a theory to explain away the protests and they are trying to find an organizer to blame," says a friend of one of the vigil participants arrested. NPR is not using the names of protesters and others interviewed for this story for their safety.
That blame would be pinned on the Beijing editor and other journalists and writers, many of them young women, in the weeks ahead.
They came together for a vigil
On Nov. 26, passersby spontaneously began laying bouquets of flowers near the sign for Urumqi Road, a major commercial thoroughfare in the metropolis of Shanghai, in remembrance of the victims of the apartment fire in the city of Urumqi that the road was named after.
Residents also shared pictures of the bouquets on social media, bringing even more people onto the street. Hours later, hundreds of people had gathered, and the atmosphere grew rowdier, according to two people NPR interviewed after the demonstration. One person began shouting for Xi to step down, a call echoed by dozens of other demonstrators.
At dawn, riot police charged the crowd, dragging several of them away and dispersing the remaining demonstrators, but not before videos and pictures of the protest were shared with people living in other cities.
In Beijing, the editor and some of her friends were hoping to remember the victims of the Urumqi fire. They decided to join a vigil they had heard would be held along the Liangma River, which runs across central Beijing and through a ritzy commercial boardwalk.
Around 8 p.m. on Nov. 27, a features writer for a state-run newspaper arrived at the river. Her boyfriend, the co-owner of a bar, gave her a ride on his motorcycle to the vigil. They brought some flowers, several of the writer's favorite poems handwritten on sheets of paper, and some candles.
They soon met up with two more friends.
Also at the riverside vigil was a former journalist who was pursuing a master's degree in film.
"She often feels guilty for her family's more affluent circumstances and that other people still live in poverty and pain," says a friend of the film student.
During an extreme lockdown of Shanghai last spring, the graduate student volunteered to find transportation for doctors and dialysis patients and also remotely coordinated online requests for help from Wuhan, when it was under lockdown in 2020.
The Beijing publishing editor came too, joining a crowd of several hundred people who slowly gathered as the frigid evening turned to dawn.
Other vigil participants held up blank paper and chanted against mandatory coronavirus testing, which was required to enter all public spaces including grocery stores and the metro, and shouted in favor of greater civil liberties and freedom of speech.
Most of the attendees wore face masks to both hide their identities but also to protect themselves against the coronavirus, which was already spreading more quickly through Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou.
Very few of those at the Liangma River that night thought they would face serious legal consequences for showing up — perhaps a police reprimand or, at worst, a day of detention, according to the people who were there. Almost none of the attendees were activists or even politically active, but simply engaged young professionals who saw the vigil as a humane gesture toward their fellow citizens.
"If we are arrested for expressing our sympathy, then how much space do our opinions have in this society?" the editor remembered thinking at the time.
They were tracked down and detained
The crackdown came swiftly.
Using phone tower data, police were able to roughly triangulate who had been near the Liangma River the night of Nov. 27. They called in vigil attendees or visited their homes at night. Most participants were let go after a few hours of questioning, but the editor watched with a growing sense of dread as her friends were detained one by one.
The newspaper journalist was asked repeatedly which feminist organizations and events she had participated in. Police were especially aggressive when questioning a woman who works as an accountant at a multinational firm, who frequented live rock music events.
The accountant had been in a chat group on the encrypted messaging app Telegram about the vigil. Since she happened to be the administrator of the chat group, she must be the demonstration organizer, police reasoned.
Some had been at the vigil purely by accident. A 31-year-old techno enthusiast happened to be drinking with friends at a bar along the Liangma River. The German magazine Der Spiegel later ran a cover story with a picture of her holding a blank sheet of white paper aloft that night.
"I drink every weekend, but the police didn't believe that I was just drinking there. They think I am the organizer," the techno fan says. Police eventually let her go after 24 hours of questioning, but they confiscated her cellphone.
On Nov. 30, police released the editor and her friends and said they could go home. The group of friends thought the worst had passed. China's leader Xi, in meetings with European diplomats soon after, reportedly dismissed the vigils as the product of a few "frustrated student protesters."
But by mid-December, the public narrative in China about the protests — previously largely unmentioned in official channels — was beginning to change. Nationalist bloggers online posited, without any factual basis, that foreign meddling was responsible for instigating the unrest. Some Chinese officials encouraged the speculation that foreign countries were responsible.
"At first, people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with how local governments were unable to completely and accurately implement measures introduced by the central government, but the protests were quickly exploited by foreign forces," said Lu Shaye, China's ambassador to France, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry transcript of remarks he gave at a reception shortly after the demonstrations.
Starting Dec. 18, many of those briefly detained earlier were formally arrested, including the editor and her friends. The woman on the Der Spiegel cover was arrested as well, according to a friend.
In her video, the editor says they were forced to sign arrest notices but the space next to what crime they were being charged with, along with when and where they would be detained, had been left blank. The families of those detained were unable to keep a copy of the arrest warrants, according to two people close to them.
NPR reached out to the Beijing police departments that made the arrests, but they declined to comment, saying the case was a national security matter.
Some of the vigil participants have been charged with the "crime of gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," which carries a maximum five-year sentence, according to Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting professor at the University of Chicago.
"According to the definition of this crime, this should target only the people who played a leading role," not ordinary vigil participants, Teng says. "The Chinese government is trying to punish the people who are active in human rights activities like LGBTQ issues or the feminism movement."
In her last video, the editor pleads for help, and she wonders why, out of the hundreds of people who were present that night, a group of young, largely female professionals was singled out. "We want to know why we were charged and what evidence there is for these charges," she says.
Three days after the vigil held near Beijing's Liangma River, the Chinese Communist Party's top security body, the Central Legal and Political Affairs Commission, vowed to "resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces and illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order."
"Now, the security forces' working theory seems to be that a group of feminists influenced by Western ideas organized the demonstrations," says a friend of several of the vigil attendees who were arrested.
Attendees denied such allegations, emphasizing the vigils were merely held to express how frustrated they were by nearly three years of China's zero-COVID policy that had left people literally starving or trapped in their own homes and destroyed the economy.
"If even ordinary people like my friends who peacefully participated in a vigil can be arrested," the friend says, "anyone can be taken."
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